Final Thoughts on Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena         

A constellation of vital phenomena cover

My first thought of reflection when I finished this book was “Good.  Now I have something to post about tonight, and I can put this book on the shelf.”  This was quite an enjoyable book, but by the end of it I was sick of it.  Sick of carrying it around, sick of spilling food on it, sick of not being able to write a post about it that’s complete.  Work has been busy the past couple of weeks and I’ve been getting home late, so I haven’t had as much time to read as usual.

And possibly I’ve been impatient to write my post about this book because I found a flaw in it last week, and I have been dying to talk about it ever since.  You have no idea how impressed I was with myself when I realized at page two hundred thirty six out of three hundred eighty-ish that I had caught Marra in a rookie mistake.  It’s more of a stylistic change than a mistake, but it’s abrupt and noticeable.  He starts using the telling-the-reader-about-what-happens-to-a-character-after-the-book-ends thing.  García Márquez does it in the first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Allende does it throughout The House of the Spirits.  But they utilize this technique throughout their books.  Marra waits until page two hundred thirty six to do it.  And he does it first with extremely minor characters who no reader would care about.  By the end he’s using this technique to tell us about what happens to Havaa, and her long and happy life, but to start with it’s some “sheikh” who Ramzan trades with prior to turning informer for the Feds.   And a patient who comes into Hospital No. 6 with a leg wound, and quite a few others.  Now don’t get me wrong.  It’s all well written, but it loosens up the narrative and made me bored.  Take, for example, the following.  This is about the future of the leg wound fellow: “The war had already taken his mother, but he would live to return home to her cats, which had multiplied to the population of a village during the war years, feasting, as they did, on the burgeoning estate of rats and mice.  Working odd jobs and sacrificing the comforts of wife and family, he would spend his life caring for the descendants of his mother’s cats.  Eight hundred and eighty-two, all named for his mother, though he would never know that exact figure (305).”  Nice, right?  But it’s about a character who is present in the novel for literally less than two pages.  We talk at my hospital all the time about how one should not do any diagnostics that aren’t going to change our treatment plan, because otherwise it’s a waste of our time and the client’s money.  I feel like these digressions of Marra’s wasted my time, the publisher’s money to print them, and they were just, like, writing exercises that didn’t advance the plot at all.  It’s possible that he was trying to pay respects to various Chechens who he met in his travels throughout the country doing research for the book, but if that’s the case, write a non-fiction book detailing the stories of the refugees, don’t stick things like this in your novel willy-nilly.  And don’t start doing it over halfway through the book; it comes off like an afterthought.

It’s possible I’m being too harsh.  But I’ve been really busy outside my reading life lately, and when I got to stuff like this while I was reading I got annoyed because I could be reading about Sonja, Havaa, and Akhmed, and their various family members and friends, not strangers.  In the second half of the book, many things happened that were not a surprise: Akhmed is taken away for refusing to reveal Havaa’s whereabouts; Sonja’s sister, Natasha, is never found (though Marra tells us all about what happened to her); Akhmed and Sonja have sex.  There are a few surprises as well, such as Khassan resists killing his son Ramzan, and drives off into the sunset with his pack of feral dogs to live at least another nine years, which is saying a lot for a Chechen man of seventy nine.

I also found the genesis of the title of the novel.  It is the definition of life as found in Sonja’s medical terminology dictionary.  This is not what I remember life being defined as.  Marra’s definition is much prettier.  Life is “a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation (317).”  I kind of don’t get it, but it’s pretty.

I definitely recommend this book.  Marra knows how to write well.  And it’s a good story.  And Chechnya deserves more time and attention paid to it than we have out here in the rest of the world.  I suspect if I’d gotten through it faster it would have annoyed me less.  I do think that if Marra had spent less time on minor characters and fleshing out their stories and more time on Sonja, Havaa, and Akhmed, as well as Natasha, Ramzan, and Khassan, I think the novel would have been stronger.  I’m sure Marra is going to have a long, successful career, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

This entry was posted in Anthony Marra, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Jill. Bookmark the permalink.

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